In the October 16, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a job seeker wants to know what companies to apply to.


applyI have a background in sales and marketing with high-profile accounts. I recently became certified in Lean Manufacturing to complement my Voice of The Customer training. I believe it gives me insight into offering more targeted solutions to clients. Additionally, I will earn my MBA shortly. I want to move up to executive marketing management, working for a business solutions-oriented company, as that is where my true passion lies. Can you steer me toward the kinds of companies that would be appropriate?

Nick’s Reply

I admire that you’re continuing your education, especially about the “voice of the customer,” which is “a market research technique that produces a detailed set of customer wants and needs” [Wikipedia]. But your question tells me that you’re marketing yourself by emphasizing your features. I’m sure you know the basic rule of sales: Don’t sell the features of your product. Sell the benefits.

It’s not about you.

One of the most troubling errors job hunters make — especially when attempting a career change — is to focus on themselves. They recite their education, experience and most recent accomplishments — like you just did. They present this information as though it has intrinsic value: “Now I’ve got what I need to impress you. It should make you want to hire me.”

But it’s not about you. Telling them about you puts an employer in the position of having to figure out what to do with you. The shocking truth is, most employers have no idea what to do with you, unless you explain it to them. You must figure that out before you can choose the appropriate employer.

What should I do now?

Imagine walking into your current boss’s office. The boss just paid to get you lots of new training and education (maybe an MBA). You say, “I’ve got all this great new training, and I’m better than I was. What should I do now?”

If I were your boss, I’d fire you. How can you walk in with new knowledge and skills and expect me to figure out what to do with it? Your value does not lie in the new stuff you learned. Your value lies in knowing what to do with your skills and credentials.

Learn to lead with the employer’s problems. That’s what they’re thinking about when they buy a product — or when they hire someone. Understanding the employer’s problems, and figuring out how your skills apply, tells you which employers to apply to.

It’s not about you.

As you consider what companies and opportunities to pursue, put yourself aside. Get into the employer’s head. What do you know about my company’s problems? How are you going to use your credentials to tackle them? If you must ask me, without demonstrating that you’ve first tried to figure this out on your own, then you’re probably not worth hiring.

My answer to your question starts with some instructions:

  • Start by picking a company you’d really like to work for.
  • Figure out what the company needs to do to be more successful. That’s column A.
  • Then put together a plan that applies your skills. That’s column B.
  • Explain to the company how you will apply B to make A happen.
  • (If you can’t do that, move on, because you’ve selected the wrong company.)
  • Be specific about your plan, but not so detailed that it seems presumptuous. The point is to stimulate a useful discussion.

Employers need people who have figured out what to do next. Employers want to know not who you are, but What can you do for me?

It’s about the employer

So throw out your resume. That outline of your history and your credentials is irrelevant at this juncture of your job search. What matters is a document that outlines two critical things:

  • An employer’s problems and
  • How you’re going to tackle them.

It’s not about you. It’s about the employer.

I know you don’t talk to your boss like you want to get fired. So approach your job search the same way you would your boss. Figure out what to do next for the employer you want to work for, and go explain it to her.

That’s how you’ll figure out which companies need to hire you.

How do you decide which companies to apply to? What’s the best way to figure it out? Is is reasonable to start with a job description or posting?

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  1. The first thing I thought in reading this is that our job seeker should first be figuring out how to use those skills internally, within his current company, to fill a need that he and others see. He could expand his job–propose a new one to meet that need–or transfer to a current or new position that would use these skills. It would give him another needed skill, negotiating with management to get something he wants by meeting their need, agreeing to an approach, and solving that problem, plus managing a transition from one boss to another. A term that is used sometimes is intrapreneuring.

    At this point, looking outside is the Plan B or C, to be executed in the future or if his future there, for some reason, won’t allow him to transfer or expand the job.

  2. You learn new skills and techniques to be better at what you do or what you want to do.
    The more perfected and refined your skill set is the more you are either in demand or able to command.
    The idea is to be focused on what you want to do with this knowledge. Otherwise, you may flounder in your career search.

  3. Hello Nick,
    It is a bit more complicated than what you have outlined…
    Unless you know in some level of detail the issues that a company is grappling with then all you have is a bunch of generalities about the company which is unlikely to be something you can map your specific skills against. So I would add the following to you list of bullet points above:

    – Start by picking a company you’d really like to work for AND that you have enough inside information on (or can find out… or can )
    – Figure out (FROM your inside contacts/information) what the company needs to do to be more successful
    .. continue the list from here

    And that’s the rub…we just typically don’t have the connections that it takes to perform this exercise and have to cultivate them, which takes time and dedication…

    • @Miguel: Thanks for fleshing out an extra step, which I merely implied in my first step. What few people realize is that much of the work required in going after a job is developing sound, useful information about the employer. It’s not just about reading the company’s annual report and recent news items. You really have to dig.

      And as you imply, if we can’t get that kind of information, then we really don’t deserve to be considered for a job, do we?

  4. Agreed. Even if you are working with those issues, you don’t know about them in depth. This is also someone in the first third of their career. That is why I suggested working it internally first…one to expand the profile and two to learn about the competition.

    Even if our job seeker tries and fails, that person will learn valuable lessons. That person will also have to accept that time is spent moving laterally in responsibilities and work content, not necessarily advancing much in title or salary, versus moving up immediately, which is an illusion many millenials have.

    • @Dee: Internal job change (or the effort to do it) can pay off enormously!

  5. I question this individual’s ability to be involved in business solutions. His opening statement is too vague. He proffers an illusion of sales success, selling to high profile clients, etc. without giving even a glimmer of details. Obvious question is, “How much experience in sales does he really have?” The more experience one acquires, especially in sales reveals one’s ability of critical thinking. I do not believe this person is that accomplished in sales. His statements are based on taking classes, learning about a subject he should know from his experiences in sales. He tells us taking classes is more important to him then experience. I do agree it isn’t about him, but this really is his focus. Individuals like this, and their adherence to theory over practicality become exposed by someone more seasoned in the workings of the marketplace. Bottom line is, even if he attempts to shift from features to benefits, his mindset will allow real salespeople to leapfrog over him. If he really learned from his sales experiences, he wouldn’t be asking this question in the first place. He would have the blueprint to go forward.

    • You make some valid points. It reflects what I personally see today. Experience, not just skill sets, but life experience (dealing with people, dealing with various management styles, conflict resolution, and toxic cultures in the workplace) are dismissed by this current breed of HR and Hiring Managers, and often instead filled with younger and less experienced candidates (and I’ll add CHEAPER) with toilet paper degrees and other meaningless and often worthless certifications.
      Case in point, I have a friend, who like many of us older workers, has been through several jobs in the last decade or so with layoffs, downsizings, buyouts, bankruptcies, and toxic cultures where they terminate employees on a whim or for vague ambiguous reasons. He applied for a job as a supervisor for CNC lathes at a company that manufactures stainless steel fittings for the oil industry. He has a strong background in operations with Steel Service Centers, but no actual machining background. The other candidate was a twenty something who had no machining experience, but had certifications in Lean Manufacturing.
      The young guy got the job, but three months later, they were advertising for the position again. My friend did some research, and through some inside intelligence, discovered that the young guy couldn’t handle the job, despite his Lean Manufacturing certifications.

  6. Taking into account Nick’s reply and the comments above, perhaps the Questioner can expand on this statement?

    “I want to move up to executive marketing management, working for a business solutions-oriented company, as that is where my true passion lies.”